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Standing Up Against Sexism in Science

A Q&A with Angela Saini

Male and female anatomyFor hundreds of years, science has failed to understand women. Whether looking at intelligence or emotion, cognition or behavior, science has continued to tell us that men and women are fundamentally different. Biologists claim that women are better suited to raising families or are uniquely empathetic. Men, conversely, are described as excelling at tasks that require logic, spatial reasoning, and motor skills. This gender bias has persisted in the cultural understanding of our evolutionary history since the Enlightenment to the twentieth century, portraying women as the inferior sex.

In Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, acclaimed science writer Angela Saini unpacks the studies that have shaped these ideas and looks at current work that is challenging those assumptions. A huge wave of research is now revealing that women are as strong, strategic, and smart as anyone else. In this Q&A, she tells our blog editor Christian Coleman about what inspired her to write the book, the women who’ve stood up against sexism in science, and how important good science is to defeat ignorance.

InferiorChristian Coleman: Tell us about the inspiration behind writing this book.

Angela Saini: I was asked to write a piece about the menopause for a newspaper a few years ago, and I decided to look into the controversy around the evolutionary explanations for why women experience it when it is so rare among other species. It turned out to be an enormous scientific and gender battleground, and that prompted me to explore other controversial areas of science around women. Once I got started, the topic became an obsession. Writing this book has utterly changed the way I think about myself, the place of women in the world, and science.

CC: Who are some pioneering women (past and present) who’ve stood up against sexism in science?

AS: Women have always stood up to sexist science. They just haven’t always been heard or taken seriously. Eliza Burt Gamble was an inspirational and brave writer and activist in the nineteenth century in the US, who challenged Darwin’s belief that women are intellectually inferior to men. She was popular amongst her supporters but for some reason largely ignored by the scientific establishment. Today, women have the freedom to study and enter the sciences on an equal footing with men, and this has utterly changed the research landscape. I am a particular admirer of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, the eminent anthropologist and primatologist, who gave me an enormous amount of her time to interview her. Her books Mothers and Others and The Woman That Never Evolved should be read by everyone.

CC: What findings in your research for the book took you by surprise?

AS: What surprised me most was to learn that there are in fact fewer psychological sex differences than I assumed there were. Gender stereotypes are so ingrained in my life as they are in most other people’s that even I found it hard to accept. Another revelation for me was to learn that so many anthropologists now agree that early human history, before agriculture, was largely egalitarian. Every interview and every bit of research was in some small way enlightening for me, and I hope it proves the same for my readers.

CC: What would you like readers to come away with after reading Inferior?

AS: I would like the research I wrote about in Inferior to become part of mainstream thinking in feminism. Until we fully understand the biological facts about our minds and bodies, and until science can move forward in a more equal and fair way, I believe the cause of sexual equality will always be hampered. There will always be some misogynist who will claim that biology makes women inferior. Armed with good science, we can conquer this kind of ignorance, bias and sexism.


About Angela Saini

Angela Saini is an award-winning science journalist whose print and broadcast work has appeared on the BBC and in the Guardian, New Scientist, Wired, the Economist, and Science. A former Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, she won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Kavli Science Journalism gold award in 2015. Saini has a master’s in engineering from Oxford University, and she is the author of Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World. Follow her on Twitter at @AngelaDSaini and visit her website.